Metal Black (Saturn) review
"Shoot em Ups have had a bad rep for a long time mostly because a lot of them seem rather similar to each other with a good majority of them taking place in space and involving silvery-white space-fighters depending entirely on power-ups to survive. Every once in a blue moon however a shooter comes along that, despite being as identical as its shooter brethren, establishes itself as one that stands out amongst the crowd with all the right aspects including a unique soundtrack, a unique theme and ..."
Shoot em Ups have had a bad rep for a long time mostly because a lot of them seem rather similar to each other with a good majority of them taking place in space and involving silvery-white space-fighters depending entirely on power-ups to survive. Every once in a blue moon however a shooter comes along that, despite being as identical as its shooter brethren, establishes itself as one that stands out amongst the crowd with all the right aspects including a unique soundtrack, a unique theme and unique art direction. All of which leads me into my review of Metal Black, a horizontal scrolling shoot em' up made by Taito's Gun Frontier development staff and released by distributors VING that serves as a shooter that stands out from the crowd for all of the above reasons.
Because this game is a horizontal shooter, Metal Black seems to be inevitably compared to Taito's Darius series which actually isn't too far off in analogies. Originally Metal Black was going to be the third sequel to Darius, but the developers wanted to take the series in a more dire direction, upon which they planned on Darius III starting the players off in a despondent, war-torn planet Darius that the previous fish enemies had decimated. The higher-ups in Taito however weren't too happy with this idea as it sort of kicked the old charm the Darius games established a little too hard, but they saw potential in the premise, thus they removed the idea from team Darius and into the minds of the Gun Frontier Team, hence the bewildering opening that's not only similar to Gun Frontier's opening, but also has 'Gun Frontier 2' in it, claiming that it's the second game they made, NOT an actual sequel to Gun Frontier.
The game takes place in the year 2035 where ten years ago the advancement of man’s travels into space were halted by a doomsday event: astronomers discovered a binary/companion star that suddenly appeared somewhere past, but astronomically close to Jupiter that started to launch the meteors from the star itself and around Jupiter towards the Earth. Upon decimating the Earth’s terrain and turning every livable zone into sand-dune inundated deserts, the alien race from the binary star confronts Earth’s survivors with a ‘join us or die’ proposition and not one to be conquered, the surviving military forces attacked the aliens with guns a-blazing.
However, said aliens were naturally armed with powerful energy beams powered by a strange alien molecule the human scientists called Newalone. As the aliens crushed Earth’s military, scientists hurried to throw their weapon back at them using what little resources they had and successfully developed a space-jet capable of using Newalone to its fullest potential known as the Black Fly. Unfortunately, Earth’s diplomats and politicians had been beaten with humiliating defeat after another that during the Black Fly’s final production, Earth’s politicians signed a treaty over to the aliens promising peace among them which meant that Earth would have to sit back and let the grotesque cyber-punk aliens feast on the desolated metallic remains of Earth by locking up all their terrestrial weapons - Project Metal Black included. Thus, you/and a friend take control of the hijacked Black Fly space-jet as you blast your way through a desolated Japan before launching yourself/selves into the heart of the alien invasion on the fabled motivation of most shooters in that you aim to save mankind.
Now as unoriginal as the opening premise mays seem, I have to applaud the game for taking a dire and dark direction towards it all. Even though we don’t get deeply immersed in the futuristic/post apocalyptic society the game’s opening establishes, it sets the player’s imagination going and it’s evident that the aliens actually have some bizarre but interesting motivation for invading the Earth which is refreshing compared to most anti-alien race shooters where an alien race just shows up and wants to kick mankind’s but for no real reason.
The Black Fly moves naturally and doesn't handle to bad, though vertically it feels a wee sluggish. The main gimmick in the game is that players must collect a multitude of single power-ups in order to slowly build up the strength of the space-jet's Newalone beams. Once you collect a sufficient amount of Newalone molecules, you can unleash a huge energy beam that envelopes your ship and kills or injures everything in front of you with massive damage or, if you tap the buttons, can emit a lightning effect that damages everything around you, but eats up your beam energy pretty fast.
Next to that however is the option that allows you to use the beam against boss enemies with the climactic 'beam duel' method; end-level bosses can also collect Newalone and also have their own beams they fire at you. When you fire your beam at theirs, a chemical reaction is sparked and either of the two beams will grow into a huge ball of energy that beats the weaker Newalone beam down. As far as combat goes, that's pretty much it save for the Black Fly’s limited amount of SAAM 90 homing missiles (used only in bonus levels) and as much as I love a game that features slews of interesting/deadly weapons, I can't beat Metal Black's Newalone firepower down despite its minimalist nature because it's a unique innovation for a shooter of its time and certainly adds new levels of strategy and it comments immensely on the game's Hard-Science emphasis in that what stretches of reality the game makes to convey its sci-fi theme are brought down to realistic and scientifically explainable terms even if those details aren't fully elucidated on (which in most Hard Sci-Fi stories is usually the case).
Oddly enough, the Black Fly's Newalone gun barrels are mounted at the very nose of the jet, but if you look closely most of your beams are able to hit enemies that are slightly above and below your entire jet and as cheap as this may sound it's actually a big help considering how numerous and deadly your enemies are in the game. Basically, you fight slews of alien space-craft or actual aliens shaped as spacecraft (which explains their rather juicy explosions and why they scream when they explode) that come at you in every direction and proffer new and interesting ways to cause your ship to collapse in on itself. Sometimes surviving them is next to impossible without dying at least once especially in the second level where enemies unique to that level shoot at you from almost every conceivable direction. The fourth level on ward introduces some of the most indescribably obnoxious and in some cases evil popcorn enemies I’ve ever seen in a shooter such as enemies that warp in out of nowhere and can shoot you at six different angles assuming they don’t invincibly warp on and collide into you first along with enemies that quickly zip onto screen from the upper and lower sides of the screen so they can fire vertical rays of electricity at you, all the while you’re being bombarded by enemies that shoot you from diagonal angles every ten seconds. But I guess this is what most Shmup fans like myself drool over, so I again I can’t really complain.
I suppose the biggest quibble I’ve found about the game is that it feels a little too easy on single player mode. The moment I cranked up the difficulty to Very Hard with mon frere, the enemy bullets increased not only in speed but in numbers and the moment said frere ran out of continues, the difficulty went back to a manageable ‘Very Hard’ mode and I was able to beat the game with no problem. All of this however isn’t so much traced to the mode itself as it is to the number of lives and continues you’re allowed. You start with the Saturn standard of four continues, but because this is a Taito shooter, players don’t share the continues, thus making it a little more new-player friendly, but add this to the number of lives you are allowed and a little bit of practice and you can manage to beat the game by yourself on Very Hard with two continues left.
Some of this might’ve been helped if the game had the old Ray Force/Galactic Attack/Layer Section pooled continues option seeing how the game isn’t as nearly as impossible as Layer Section nor as frustrating or at the very least choice between single player and two player like in Darius Twin, but the game is still challenging enough for two players to add on the replay value.
Part of this is also rooted in the fact that the boss fights suffer from that seemingly pointless invisible boss timer where a three minute clock will tick on for virtually every boss save for the final one (which is only increased by like two minutes) and the moment that timer is up, the boss instantly dies an unexplained death which to me is the equivalent of the timed Gradius boss fights where the boss would cover its core up and hit the self-destruct button which to my mind is the equivalent of telling the player “Va te faire foutre.”
If there’s one genuine complaint I have with the difficulty is that it kicks the game’s artistic direction in the back of the head. Every time you see something unique and visually creepy in the background, it’s immediately preceded by slews of down right blisteringly cheap enemies armed with some of the cheapest attacks in the game that will almost immediately kill you in seconds while the cool thing is going on in the background. Of course they could’ve done worse; I’ve never felt that an artistically astounding shoot em’ up works when a check point system is involved because that usually means that you will constantly have to sit through seeing the same unique visual opening of a boss fight or level background repeatedly to the point where it instantly loses its effect, so just having you start off postmortem while the pretty thing in the background happens is better, but it’s still a bit of a hindrance having to fight to the death in order to see something visually unique.
The sound is a little flawed as some explosions don’t seem to match what we see particularly when you blast actual aliens and they erupt in fire while making a small ‘pee-you’ noise and sometimes your beams just don’t sound good at all when they’re powered up, but in other cases the sound adds to the game’s atmospheric attributes and Hard-Science emphasis, particularly when you destroy ground-force enemies in space and they explode in a ball of fire that quickly collapses-in on itself with an audible mix of space vacuum-suck and implosion. Also it makes sense for some kamikaze ship-like enemies to explode in audible squishes seeing how they’re basically living metal, something that BioMetal refused to emphasize on making all their Geiger enemies look like they had gasoline for blood. Also, there’s something I find personally amusing about a shmup ship that has a Boss Alert Siren that sounds like a 1930’s car horn.
The music (composed by Zuntata) is very unique in that it conveys the game’s fingers-tight action and jaw-dropping, but wonderfully strange boss fights with combinations of somewhat dire, but hopeful rock mixes and intense atmospheric sounds.
Surprisingly enough, some of the graphics were refined in the Saturn version despite popular belief, but only on a minimal attribute. In particular, the adding of transparencies as the fifth level boss flies into the background as a green blob you can actually see through rather than a combination of rainbow colors seen in the Arcade version which is evident in the Taito Legends 2 compilation. The graphics are a little ahead of it’s time in that the foregrounds of the first and fourth level are a little hard to determine whether you can collide into them or not and the 3D graphics the game does use are considerably the best for its time and understandably ONLY for it’s time, but such are mere graphical nit-picks.
The sound and music is also refined for better presentation on the Saturn version as the Level 4 song starts off with audible echos and the sounds of bosses getting hit just... sound better than the Arcade version (sorry for the lack of elucidation, but that’s all I can say, really).
What I down-right love about this game is its highly unique ideal of visual story-telling & artistic direction, something that this very game seemed to help boost the future of the Darius games into the seemingly cinematic and epic games the series ended on. Many of the elements that were introduced in Metal Black found themselves gracing Darius Gaiden and G-Darius from the fish-ships screaming as they explode in a psychedelic sea of dazzling hypnotic lights straight down to the beam-duels. The game itself is down right unique and in many cases is hard to actually compare to games of the same genre (well, the last two R-Type games sort of reached a similar conclusion, but then consider the seven year difference between them).
I will admit the game has its faults, particularly in some of the presentation aspects like when you seem to warp from one area of space to the next with no visual explanation (ie: within seconds you travel from Earth's moon to a giant metal space-fortress), the Engrish in the hurried opening and eye-widening ending is a little hard to ignore and admittedly there could have been a few extra bits VING or Taito could've added on to refine the game's atmosphere and short length (at the very least, some art concepts you can unlock), but all of this is excusable for the following visual attributes that adhere to the game's story and game play:
* A level in which you enter a wormhole where giant Diatoms try to eat your jet.
* A level in which you enter an asteroid only to find it brimming with undiscovered, primitive alien life-forms that, again, try to eat your jet.
* A scarab beetle like boss who sits atop of a pile of decimated colony and space-ships it uses to roll into a ball to attack you with.
* And a boss that hatches from an egg shaped like Earth’s moon.
A game featuring these attributes alone should be enough to get the games-are-art hippy’s mind rolling, but Metal Black doesn’t stop there.
These are only a few of the many artistic attributes Metal Black has to offer; everything from the beginning all the way to the end speak for itself that this game was made for presentation. There are moments in the game that continue to bring little chills along my skin particularly the game’s only other ending and the entire course of the game makes you feel like you're partaking in some long told ancient legend foreseen by alien eyes that's about to come true for a purpose that’s about as beyond our grasp and understanding as Fulcanelli’s perception of the gothic cathedral’s ‘cosmic designs’. The final boss fight in particular is about as jaw dropping, perplexing and surprisingly gross than you can imagine, but the feeling stays with you regardless and I think that's Metal Black's strongest attribute (next to game play and music).
Ultimately, if you can play Japanese release games on your Saturn, then I highly implore you to check this game out because visually speaking you're in for a bigger surprise than you may think and if you aren't afraid of playing a dead genre on your semi-nouveau game console, then you owe it to yourself to verify that bravery.
Community review by newalone4 (June 30, 2008)
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